20 October 2010
Paul Melly

Paul Melly

Associate Fellow, Africa Programme


Two of West Africa's most intractable political crises face crucial tests this month: on 24 October Guinea will show if it can manage to hold the much-delayed second round of its presidential election. One week later citizens of Côte d'Ivoire should finally get their oft-postponed chance to elect a new head of state.

With days to go before the run-off, Guinea's electoral commission was still paralysed by a factional battle for control of the electoral commission - split between the supporters of the rival candidates Alpha Condé and Cellou Dalein Diallo who topped the first round poll in June.

Earlier this week security forces used live fire to curb street protests by youth supporters of Diallo; two people died, at least 30 were wounded and women were raped by government forces.

The interim president Sékouba Konaté now seems to have restored consensus through the appointment of a Malian elections expert as neutral head of the electoral commission. But he faces massive practical challenges to ensure a free and fair vote does take place on time.

Conditions are hardly any more certain in Côte d'Ivoire. The country looks on course to hold its presidential poll on 31 October. But there is one massive caveat: this vote would be decisive in resolving a political crisis that has been fuelled by a more than decade-long confrontation between Laurent Gbagbo - now the president - and his two main rivals, ex-head of state Henri Konan Bédié and northern political figurehead Alassane Ouattara.

The disputed national origin rules, that for years were deployed to shut Ouattara out of bidding for the presidency, have now been reformed. But progress in demobilising former rebel Forces Nouvelles fighters from the north has been slow; and the dangerous politics of identity that brought violence to the streets of Abidjan have not entirely faded away.

In both Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, questions of ethnicity and vested interest powerfully influence the headline political contests. The parallel presidential races in these two countries are thus, to some extent, a test of their ability to sustain coherent political systems despite such strains.

However, one should not overstate the similarities. Côte d'Ivoire had a long track record of strong economic performance, foreign investment and investor confidence before it slid into crisis and in 2002-05, outright conflict. The epic power tussle that comes to a head with this month's presidential election was in some ways a battle over the control and distribution of resources and influence within this now degraded model of success.

In Guinea, by contrast, rival political camps are fighting over the opportunity to assume the mantle of post-disaster national leadership, after decades of corrupt and authoritarian rule. The historic figurehead of opposition, Condé - who never compromised with the 24-year regime of the late President Lansana Conté - faces off against Cellou Dalein Diallo, a modernising technocrat who served in government for several years under Conté.

Guinea does not appear to be at risk of the sort of fragmentation and civil conflict that at times has come close to dismantling Côte d'Ivoire. But the intensity of the struggle for control of the electoral authorities highlights the fierceness of the political factional battle underway, and the scale of economic resource that the eventual winner will be able to deploy.

For Guinea harbours massive iron ore and other mineral resources, and foreign investors are queueing up to finalise concession deals. The new democratic government can also hope, eventually, to benefit from the restoration of foreign aid programmes that have been suspended during the recent years of governance crisis.

For Côte d'Ivoire this month's vote offers a chance to restore the stability and steady economic progress that characterised the country until the late 1990s. For Guinea the advent of democracy could offer the chance to realise development opportunities that have gone unfulfilled for decades.

But for both countries, the first task will be to successfully complete the presidential election process and ensure that the result is accepted on all sides as legitimate. That represents a massive challenge in itself.